Med Students Help Teach Nutrition, Physical Activity Goals to Illinois School Kids

May 9, 2012, 5:01 PM, Posted by

An interesting presentation yesterday at the Weight of the Nation Conference focused on an elective at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) Medical School that teams medical students with school children to help them reach physical fitness and nutrition goals. In addition to community-based work, students learn skills to help them speak to students about making healthier choices and increasing their physical activity. The project was started by Tracey Jo Smith, MS, a coordinator in the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

Smith is the department liaison to the Springfield Collaborative for Active Child Health, which joins partners including the medical school and the health department with school districts and the area’s Head Start program to focus on obesity in Springfield.

Outcomes of the students’ work is largely qualitative so far, including improvements in school kids’ choices of fruits and vegetables, in choosing milk over soda and in engaging in vigorous activity. Medical students wrote narratives about their experiences and often, according to Smith, highlighted social disparities and of their desires to continue their relationships with the schools even after the elective ended.

Smith says a key benefit of the program to the students is that they can now go into the community as physicians knowing they can make a difference with evidence-based practices. The program is just three years old and Smith plans to follow them as they enter residency and practices. “My goal is to follow up to really see when they go into practice how it affect their patients, address barriers, and are they more comfortable than other physicians talking with their patients about physical activity and nutrition.” Smith says many have stressed these skills during their residency interviews.

This year students supported Head Start programs in addition to school districts and have told Smith they want to expand that program, including working to empower parents.

“I really do believe they will take their new skills with them,” says Smith. “Some are looking for residencies that will let them use these skills.”

>>Bonus viewing: Watch RWJF staff and childhood obesity grantees talk about the first day of the Weight of the Nation conference:

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.